Holiday Book Review: The Grave Tattoo

Holiday Book review of Val McDermid's Lake District based Thriller
Holiday Book review of Val McDermid’s Lake District based Thriller

Before setting off on holiday, I like to try to read a novel either about the place I am visiting or by a local author. I don’t mind if the details of the plot are factually correct or if the author has used artistic license, I am more interested in soaking up an atmosphere or the ‘sense’ of a place; a preparation for discovery.

For visitors to the Lake District, Val McDermid does this in her psychological suspense thriller The Grave Tattoo.  She mixes history, literature and murder most foul wrapped up in the culture and heritage of Wordsworth country. Many of the place names are actual – Lancaster, Kendal, Keswick, Coniston –Dove Cottage, Grasmere and even Zefferelli’s cinema in Ambleside get a mention.

The plot begins with the discovery of a 200 year old tattooed body in marshland surrounding Fell Head. Forensic anthropologist, River Wilde, identifies the tattoo as typical of 18th century South Sea sailors. Enter Jane Gresham, academic and expert in William Wordsworth manuscripts, who has a long-held theory that Fletcher Christian, 1st mate and chief mutineer of HMS Bounty, had not ended his days on the island of Pitcairn but made his way back to the place of his birth, Fellhead in the Lake District.

Photo ©Donald Cruttenden
Fell Head in the Lake District – Where the plot begins

She has evidence in the form of a letter which leads her to believe that the famous mutineer recounted his adventures to one time school chum, William Wordsworth, who then wrote the epic which family members, in order to preserve the honour and reputation of the family, subsequently decided to destroy. With the discovery of another letter the trail leads her to suspect that the manuscript is now in fact in the hands of one of the descendants of Dorcas Mason, previous housekeeper to the Wordsworth family. The discovery of the body, which she is convinced is that of Fletcher Christian,  intensifies Jane’s search for the manuscript.

Add to the mix of the story a scurrilous ex-boyfriend, a lonely mix-raced cockney teenager accused of murder and on the run from the Met, four suspicious deaths, the inevitable and colourful village ‘characters’ including a resentful local schoolmaster and the story becomes a intriguing page-turner. Woven between chapters is the supposed script recounting Fletcher Christian’s escape from the island of Pitcairn, giving two stories in one and with vividly contrasting eras and writing styles.

Although I would like to have seen a greater development of the main characters in the novel, it does deliver enough detail and historical facts to picque an interest in a bygone era. Undoubtedly both have their charms, but McDermid’s contrast between the concrete jungle housing estate in London and the rolling hills of Cumbria is enough to have anyone packing their bags and moving north quick smart.

For me, the novel was a ‘right good read’ as they would say in Cumbria and gives a real flavour of the rich culture and heritage of the county with England’s highest mountain and longest lake. Wordsworth fans will know that the anniversary of his birthday is 7th April. I wonder whether the story of his ‘lost manuscript’ would have amused him or had him turning in his grave?

The Grave Tattoo91482

  • Val McDermid
  • Publisher: Harper (4 Mar 2010)
  • ISBN-10: 0007344600
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007344604

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